A Noel Coward play gets turned into a feckless movie
Australian writer/director Stephan Elliott received acclaim for his 1994's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and went on to work on two Hollywood movies--1997's Welcome to the Woop Woop and 1999's Eye of the Beholder--that didn't live up to his potential before his career was as laid up following a life-threatening skiing accident in 2004. His first movie in nine years isn't going to revive his career, though. Based on the play of the same name by Noel Coward and set in 1928's British countryside, the romantic comedy of manners Easy Virtue could be heap of fun, and in fact, the movie has moments of roaring '20s sexual daring and pure slapstick--but it's just not enough.
Widow, race-car driver, and modern American woman Larita (Jessica Biel) spontaneously marries John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), an Englishman whose country estate they soon visit, and whose uptight, proper family neither falls for her charms nor her for theirs. Larita appears to want to make a good impression on John's stiff-upper-lip mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), his moody father (Colin Firth), and his siblings Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) and Marion (Katherine Parkinson), but it's so hard to tell what Biel is doing with her character.
In the first scene at the grand but slightly run down family home, Biel acts out a confusing array of emotions, none of which are totally wrong, just inconsistent and unbelievable for their rapid succession. She's intimated, nervous, bold, haughty, astonished, stupid, angry, and confused, appearing to try to ingratiate herself to the family while looking seriously repulsed by the sight of them. And this misfiring of characteristics happens throughout the movie.
Biel's broad shoulders and athletic body perhaps lent her to Larita, as this sporty woman from Chicago speaks her mind and isn't limited by British protocol--she certainly looked marvelous in Hepburn trousers and bias-cut dresses--but Biel doesn't possess the talent to do something substantial with the role. And, as if the whole production were tainted by bad casting, the wonderfully gifted Thomas brings a one-note shrillness to her stuck-in-the-past Mrs. Whittaker and Firth does the same with his Mr. Whittaker, only replace "shrillness" with "sullenness."
To be fair, Larita doesn't make the most sense either: She's supposedly the first female race-car driver, but she's afraid of riding a horse in a competitive hunt. Our bet is to blame Biel--here's hoping Elliott gets another shot.